Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Against Ayn Rand

This piece is against Ayn Rand as a writer and is based on "The Fountainhead" and the first 130 pages of "Atlas Shrugged".

I will deliberately not talk about her philosophy even though it is highly controversial and its merits, debateable. I do this simply because I don't want to digress and simply want to focus on her artistic skills (or the lack of the same).

There is a huge fan base of hers in NIT S'kal (as elsewhere in South India) and I was therefore partially biased against her even before I read any of her works. This is not new to me as I am intensely suspicious of lit wannabes spouting polysyllabic words/jargon and showering praise upon X. This habit also led me to have a pejorative view of "The Catcher in the Rye" but in this case I realised at first, that it WAS a brilliant book and more slowly, that it was probably one of the greatest ever written. So, simply invoking this tendency of mine as the motivation for this (critical) article will probably not be correct.

The first thing that comes across to a layman average reader like me is that the book seems to be an embittered rant rather than a coherent, well guided chain of thoughts. She scarce feigns sympathy when talking about her bad characters and doesn't spare long winded superlative adjectives for her heroes and heroines.

For her the world is black or white. Mostly black with a tinge of intense, painfully bright white scattered here and there. The Black can't tolerate this and tries to stub out the White ruthlessly. There you have it-the quintessential Randian theme.

Now I am but a stupid kid, but this seems to me to be a very immature way of writing a great novel-great and epic being words routinely used to describe her works. I agree with epic, but great? Nah...(In fact, "The Foutainhead" was introduced to me with the words that meant that the four main characters of the book were four basis vectors, the linear combination of which would form the character of any arbitrary human ever conceived! Talk about tall praise!)

A great novel doesn't despise its characters. It treats them with sympathy, no matter how bad they are. Dostoyevsky wrote about Nihilists and buffoons all his life. In particular, he intensly disliked Nihilists and berated them in 'A Writer's Diary'-his non-fiction (some stories were published in them too. So technically, it's not all non fiction) collection of essays. But one look at the description of a Nihilist in any of his works dispels the notion that he took sides when he wrote. In fact, his description of these people is most moving, giving a rare insight into how much he empathised with them. A good writer doesn't contrive to defame a character. He understands the bad guy's punyness, his helpless evil. That, in my view, is a hallmark of a great novel-not girth of the work.

However if Ayn Rand had decided to write a graphic novel or a comic book, she would have been the greatest exponent of the genre for her characters are black or white, good or bad, superheroes or supervillains. "The Fountainhead" reads like an atrociously fat comic book. The hero fights all his life. He is blessed with superhuman powers that he uses to find his way out of troubles. He doesn't care a fuck about anybody and is supremely good looking and RomanGodesque in his features. And so on and so forth...Howard Roark could as well have been Batman. It would have been the greatest comic book ever written.

Now there is also a personal reason why I cannot stand Rand. She makes me feel like a piece of shit. Not just me but most of humanity. She hates mediocrity, so much so that the reader (if he is aware of his mediocrity, which sadly I am only too well aware of) might want to question his purpose of existence in this world. She is too fiercely opinionated on this topic (as with other topics) to even try to think on what the poor soul who is reading her high and mighty book might be feeling. She has places reserved in her books for Supermen and Superwomen, Supervillains and Supervamps, but not for ordinary folks with their failings and their humble efforts to correct them. She deals in extremes, not means.


Not everything is bad about her though. She is brilliant in patches. Too brilliant! Examples can be that paragraph about burning suttas being the manifestations of deep thought in "Atlas Shrugged" and that paragraph in which Peter Keating makes a bad painting and asks Howard Roark if it is any good. They are brilliant pieces of writing that would make any writer proud. Also notable is her use of extremely strong, brilliant, beautiful (read RomanGoddessesque) and intelligent females who are extremely proud and unyielding. I like them!

However, the problem with the works of this hopelessly popular writer would be a lack of feeling a reader will have for the protagonists. They are so fucking sure of themselves that I want to kill them! "Howard, I slept with X", "I know". "When I slept last with you, I didn't tell you I had AIDS. But I guess you knew it", "Yes I did". Yeah whatever! This went on to such extents that I wouldn't have been surprised if Howard Roark had collaborated with Saddam Hussain to blow away the housing complex. A pained grunt would have been my reaction, that's it!

Anyway, enough of Anti Rand rant. Any more of this and I would be accused of plagiarising from Ayn Rand herself.


kandy.virtuoso said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
kandy.virtuoso said...

Your preconceived notion makes this post redundant.

गौरव सोलंकी said...

"A great novel doesn't despise its characters. It treats them with sympathy, no matter how bad they are."
I don't think great things can be defined so easily. They don't need to sympathize with all the characters. If they tell their stories with honesty, then I think that writer has done his/her work.
One more good thing you wrote yourself that why u didnt like the book. Its definitely against mediocrity and thats why you couldn't stand it. It slaps mediocrity at face. And you said wrong that it has just super heroes and super villains. Peter Keating is just a mediocre who's not bad but becomes bad when it comes to his success. Otherwise he never harms anybody.
My observation is..You are against the novel just because you can't become Howard or you think there is nobody like Howard in the world or can't be. Or if there is any Howard Roark, he doesn't win in the end. Thats why he looks Superhero to you. But he is not. He doesn't win (except the very end)in worldly terms. He is happy and successful in his own definition of happiness and success. ALL SUPERHEROES ALWAYS WIN IN WORLD'S DEFINITION. They have mediocre desires and superhuman abilities. Howard is different and I love him. And believe me, one can be like him. He is not unreal.

Nanga Fakir said...

Very honored to have had you comment here!

Although this post is a little oldish (4 years?) and a lot of things have happened in between, my essential distaste for Ayn Rand and her, in my opinion, rather juvenile literary output, hasn't changed at all. I totally agree that the post doesn't give strong, cogent reasons for my bias.

And well, may be it's just my mediocrity!